Sorghum syrup on hot, buttery biscuits is an evocative breakfast in the American South, where the nostalgic nectar retains a foothold against modernity’s deluge of sugar, corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. Although the sultry, slightly tangy ambrosia may have become less familiar in the past century, it has actually experienced a resurgence in recent years. While it is being reexamined for its culinary potential, it is also venerated as a traditional foodstuff.
The viscous, amber-colored drizzle is made from the juice of Sorghum bicolor, a grass first cultivated in south Egypt four thousand years ago. Although Southern tastes suggest the plant has been rooted in the southeastern United States since time immemorial, it officially arrived in the 1850’s. Families grew the hearty, draught-resistant crop because it freed them from costly, imported sugarcane and maple syrup.
The September harvest remains a social occasion where communities share in the work and sweet rewards. Workers strip the leaves and cut the seed heads from the plants before chopping down the bare stalks, which lay in the field for a week to cure. Mills, once drawn by horses or mules but now mechanized, squeeze out the green, swampy juice, which is boiled all day in a large, shallow pan until it browns and produces thick bubbles. The finished product, once bottled, will keep indefinitely at room temperature.
Sorghum syrup is sometimes mistakenly called sorghum molasses because it looks similar to blackstrap molasses, which is made from sugar cane or beet sugar. It tastes somewhat like its doppelganger but nuttier and grassier. Because it is rich in iron, calcium, and potassium, doctors once prescribed spoonfuls to patients with nutrient deficiencies. Fans delight in pouring it over their ice cream or hot cereals, and modern chefs are using it in every recipe that calls for honey or molasses, as well as in unexpected creations like glazes for roasted meats or popped sorghum grains.
Although the crop fell out of favor after World War II, when farm labor was hard to come by and inexpensive glucose sugars were on the rise, the demand for its products has increased dramatically in the past decade. Many value the syrup as a natural, alternative sweetener, while others celebrate the heritage food at annual sorghum festivals held throughout the South. The grain has also gained popularity in baked goods and beers among those suffering from celiac disease and other conditions that cause gluten intolerance.
The crop itself has gained even wider acceptance in the South, where research is being done on new strains and their
ability to withstand pests, weeds, and chemicals. As a rotation crop, it returns nutrients to the soil, and it is more tolerant of hot, dry conditions than corn or soy. Although long respected as an inexpensive animal feed, some farmers are reluctant to invest in the old but unfamiliar plant, and many await further education or insight into its market potential.
One factor that may promote cultivation even further is sorghum’s potential as a biofuel. Recent studies suggest the crop may be more efficient in this capacity than corn because it produces more usable biomass with less effort. Even as Southern communities laud the historical and cultural significance of sorghum, scientists research its potential to meet the energy and nutritional needs of future generation. Therefore, the coming century could see sorghum-powered cars in addition to the sorghum syrup on the tables of tomorrow’s pancake restaurants.